Surrounded by union members who filled the gallery and packed Capitol hallways in opposition to right-to-work legislation, the Montana House on Tuesday voted down the proposal.
The vote was 38-62, with 29 Republicans joining Democrats in opposition to the bill. The breakdown in the House is 67 Republicans and 33 Democrats.
"I know my past. I know my town's past," said Rep. Derek Harvey, D-Butte, on the House floor Tuesday in opposition to the bill, acknowledging the hundreds of union members whose applause was heard throughout the chamber and from an overflow space after the vote.
Harvey detailed the role unions have played in the Mining City, which he said produced the copper that fueled the industrial revolution, electrified the nation and supplied ammunition to soldiers in two world wars.
"I also know the history of a man named Frank. Frank (Little) was standing up for his fellow workers when one night he was drug out of his boarding house and beat nearly to death and drug behind a car through the center of my district," Harvey said before going on to list the Anaconda Road massacre and labor strikes of 1914 that led to martial law in his district.
"This is an outrageous bill, and it's outrage that it's made it (this far) through the process," Harvey said.
House Bill 251 was carried by Rep. Caleb Hinkle, R-Belgrade. It saw strong opposition from union members around the state as it advanced through a committee with opposition from Democrats and some Republicans who hold a majority in the Legislature.
But enough GOP members of the House Business and Labor Committee said last week they wanted to bring the debate to the full House floor, moving it along to Tuesday's vote.
The bill would have prohibited the requirement of belonging to a union as a condition of employment. The bill would also bar private-sector unions from requiring non-members covered by bargaining agreements pay union dues.
The Janus decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 already made it so unions can't collect fees for collectively bargaining on behalf of non-member public employees.
Some spoke in support of the bill on the floor, including Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade. Hinkle said that if a union did a good job advocating for workers, they didn't need forced dues. Hinkle also objected to political spending by unions.
"I think the whole question about benefits here is a non-issue and I think the opponents know it, but in my opinion, I think ... maybe these forced dues are used for electioneering," Hinkle said.
Rep. Brad Tschida, who ended up voting against the bill, said Hinkle received threats for carrying it and called for civility.
In opposition, another Butte Democrat, Rep. Jim Keane, said he was frustrated at the time and energy spent on the legislation in a session he said was billed as focused on creating jobs.
"These people are here because they want to be protected," Keane said of those who filled the House gallery.
Union members have packed the Capitol in a density hardly seen this session for the last two days to mobilize against anti-union legislation. On Tuesday, union workers on the third floor outside the House were jammed around a TV to watch the proceedings inside, taking up the real estate usually inhabited by lobbyists.
“These are not partisan members,” said Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, who was among those in the hallway. “These are people who believe in their collective bargaining rights. They vote for a lot of different issues but the bottom line is our membership will stand for its right to collective bargaining.”
On the first floor, union members watched the debate on one set of TVs, while the right-to-work proponents watched on another TV on the other side of the hallway. Randy Pope, executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work, said he was disappointed with the vote.
“I thought it might be a little bit closer,” Pope said. “But we’ve been wanting to get a vote and now we’ve got a vote.”
Greg Ferguson, a Helena union member with Ironworkers Local 732, was among those watching the House floor debate from a TV on the first floor. He works all over the state, but came to the Capitol on Tuesday because he was concerned about how the House would vote on HB 251.
Ferguson said 11 years with the union has “given me medical care, given me wages that allowed me to go on vacation and put away money for my children, for their college, whatever it is they decide to do,” he said. “It’s just about being able to have a better life.”
With the right-to-work question asked and answered Tuesday, Pope said his group would return next session to try again.
“We’ll be back, too,” Ferguson said.
While past Democratic governors have made clear their opposition to right-to-work legislation, the landscape is different in Montana now with the first Republican to hold that office in 16 years.
During the 2020 gubernatorial campaign now Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, a Republican, said at a stop in Sidney that now-Gov. Greg Gianforte would not veto a right-to-work bill. Juras clarified to the Montana Television Network later that she had not spoken to Gianforte about such legislation and said that a bill would not be a priority. The campaign also said the audio from the event had been edited.
The state Senate on Monday before adjourning for the midway point of the session also defeated two bills that would have limited union actions.
Senate Bill 228 from Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, and Senate Bill 89 from Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, proposed changes in light of the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision Janus v. AFSCME. That decision found that public sector unions could not mandate fees to non-union public employees for the purpose of collective bargaining.
SB 228, after amendments, would have allowed public sector union members to withdraw from the union twice per year. Hertz said he brought the bill for constituents who were concerned about halting their union dues.
The bill saw pushback on the floor from Democrats and some Republicans.
Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, said the bill was tantamount to right-to-work legislation.
“We can call it what we want but let’s call it what it is, it’s a right-to-work bill,” he said.
Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, encouraged a no vote, saying he urged the Senate to “leave our workers alone.”
Hertz said emphatically that he would not vote for a right-to-work bill that impacts private unions, but that working for the government is very different.
The bill died on a tie 25-25 vote.
Regier introduced SB 89 by detailing the Janus decision and offering a list of political activity from public unions that favored Democrats. The bill would disallow the state from withholding union dues in employee paychecks, with Regier saying he believed it effectively offered the union free state services and could be argued that it equates to an in-kind services for a politically one-sided group.
The bill again saw objections, with Lynch saying there was no need for the legislation and it attacked workers.